In her inaugural address on Oct. 17, NYU President Linda G. Mills highlighted the importance of risk-taking and cross-disciplinary research and pledged to be the conduit that brought schools and departments together to address the world’s big questions.
So the next morning, she gathered four NYU giants in the fields of medicine, journalism, visual arts, and astrophysics to offer first-hand accounts of groundbreaking scholarship and innovation.
NYU Faculty on the Power and Practice of Transformation continued the Inauguration Week’s emphasis on innovation and progress by spotlighting faculty. In a thought-provoking conversation, Tisch School of the Arts photography professor Deborah Willis, NYU Langone Transplant Institute Director and Chair of the Department of Surgery Robert Montgomery, journalism professor Rachel Swarns, and research professor Shirley Ho from the Department of Physics, shared stories of how creativity, curiosity, and determination helped them become leaders in their respective fields.
“NYU is an incredibly creative place. So many people are ready to bring together the disciplines to answer a big question,” Mills said at the start of the hour-long forum at the Global Center for Academic and Spiritual Life. “This is where our size works in our favor. Someone will have the expertise.”
Moderated by Stephanie Mehta, the CEO of Mansueto Ventures, publisher of Fast Company and Inc., the conversation touched on their careers, how failure can be a critical ingredient for success, the need for confidence to challenge gatekeepers and naysayers, how personal experiences inspire areas of inquiry, and the resilience to withstand rejection.
In response to Mehta’s question about a moment when they defied conventional wisdom, Willis recalled a being in college and asking her professors about the photographers they were studying. “I asked ‘Where are the Black photographers?’ I had professors who said, ‘Oh, we don’t know any,’ and I had one professor who said, ‘Why don’t you do the research?’ I found the gap. I knew there was a different history.”
Willis spent the next 50 years researching and writing about the history of Black photography and photographers. The University Professor and chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts, Willis has written books and curated exhibitions, including Rest is Power at NYU’s Center for Black Visual Culture. She was a MacArthur fellow in 2000.